“Citizen advocates are the best.”
These were the parting words from Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) at our Mission to Washington before she retired some years ago.
I was impressed by this salt-of-the-earth senator, who stood about four-foot-six in heels and could intimidate any NBA center of her time. As a lifelong grassroots campaigner, she understood the value and genuine passion of citizen advocacy. She also must have enjoyed our visit, as she spent more time with us than we had expected, while the head of the FBI, sitting patiently in a nearby office, waited for his turn to speak with her.
About 27 years after our organization was founded by a small group of concerned advocates in a Bergen County basement, NORPAC held its 27th Mission to Washington on May 21. It included approximately 1,100 people. Citizen advocates now join us each year from 12 regions in New York and New Jersey, including Edison, Elizabeth, Englewood/Teaneck, Fair Lawn, the Five Towns, Highland Park, Long Branch, Monsey, New Rochelle, Riverdale, West Hempstead, and West Orange.
We all came as volunteers to meet with any member of Congress who was willing to listen to us make the case for Israel. We came prepared with talking points, legislation we were advocating for, and mostly to emphasize that this group of Americans cares about our issues and are willing to work to make sure our country’s leadership takes those issues seriously.
At the D.C. Warner Theatre, we heard congressional leaders Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee; Representative Lee Zeldin (R-NY Dist. 1), the most senior Jewish Republican in Congress; Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ Dist. 5), co-author of the Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act of 2019; Representative Mark Meadows (R-SC), chairman of the Congressional Freedom Caucus; and Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY Dist. 16), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, who took to the podium that morning to deliver remarks on current legislation to sanction Hamas and Hezbollah, to counter the BDS movement, and to support continued aid to Israel.
Then we broke into 140 small groups of Norpac delegates, each with just six to eight people, and we took shuttle buses to Capitol Hill to prepare for their congressional meetings. We met with more than 400 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, from both parties, that day.
These teams discussed five talking points about the U.S.-Israel relationship with the legislators with whom they met.
The first point was a discussion of Israel’s importance to America. Examples include the ways in which Israeli technology saves American lives, the binational shared intelligence, and our shared security needs and shared values. Given that there are more than 100 new members of Congress, the “Why Israel” talking point had to be reinforced.
The second point was a request to continue the annual security aid package to Israel, as agreed upon in the Memorandum of Understanding, signed in 2016, which guarantees $3.3 billion in security assistance and an additional $500 million in anti-missile procurement funds.
The third point was a request to co-sponsor an anti-BDS resolution in the House (H. Res. 246) and the Senate (S. Res. 120). That resolution establishes strong congressional opposition to BDS and lays out its harmful effects on the prospect of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The main point here was to educate Congress about why the BDS movement is anti-Semitic, and how to recognize the difference between fair criticism and bigotry.
As providence would have it, the day we came there the secretaries of State and Defense provided a special briefing on Iran for both the House and the Senate. This made our discussions of our fourth point more impactful, as we emphasized the malign activities and dangers of Iran as a terror sponsor and instigator of conflict in the Middle East. Our goal was to remind our national leaders of the extent of Iran’s influence as both a bad actor and a dangerous adversary. We did not recommend any specific action to Congress, just reminded them that this is a problem that needs to be a priority for them.
The fifth point was a request for sanctions against banks and businesses that help fund the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. This took the form of the Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act (H.R.1850) in the House of Representatives, and a request for a complementary bill in the Senate.
In addition to meeting with most members of the House of Representatives, NORPAC members met with the offices of congressional leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY). These leaders reaffirmed their strong support for the U.S.-Israel relationship and broadly pledged to support our talking points.
It was obvious to our mission’s leaders and members that this year was especially important to attend because of the rise in overt anti-Semitism. Never underestimate what a group of motivated Americans can do. NORPAC has grown in a short 27 years from a group of about 15 people, meeting in a basement, to become the nation’s largest pro-Israel political action committee, meeting annually in Washington with most of Congress and holding personal meetings with almost 20 percent of Congress in our homes each two-year election cycle.
Thank you to those who joined us, and to those who will join us in the future to defeat Israel’s enemies and anti-Semitism!
Dr. Ben Chouake, MD, of Englewood is the national president of Norpac, the largest pro- Israel political action committee in the United States. He runs a medical practice in Cliffside Park and is a board member of several Jewish organizations on the local and national level.